On Labor Day, after breakfast at Huddle House in Senatobia, I decided to head out into Benton County on a search for the possibility of more blues or fife-and-drum picnics. After driving to Holly Springs, I headed out Highway 7 until I came to the town of Lamar, Mississippi in Benton County. There wasn’t much at Lamar other than an abandoned store and a post office, but the next town up the road, Michigan City, was more interesting, to say the least.
I have never determined why a town in Mississippi was named Michigan City, but the years have not been kind to the place. The few business buildings on Main Street have been abandoned, as have the railroad tracks that once ran through the center of town. However, on the opposite side of the tracks are some historic homes and church buildings, most in good shape, but a few abandoned. The streets are narrow, and local residents traverse them with golf carts, as the whole community is fairly compact and easy to get around in. Unfortunately, like all of Benton County, Michigan City seems like a community that has been largely abandoned. Yet, with available historic homes and buildings, it seems as if it could be redeveloped by people committed to a vision for the community.
I soon crossed into the town of Grand Junction, Tennessee, in Hardeman County, a place where the blues musician Little Joe Ayers recalled fife-and-drum picnics in 1969 or 1970. But there was no sign of any festive activities in the small town, and the downtown area had lost some buildings just in the year or so since I had been there last.
I had driven extensively in parts of Fayette County in the fall of 2015, so I decided to focus on the southwestern quadrant of the county, an area I had not spent much time in back then. Starting at LaGrange, I drove the LaGrange Road into Somerville, and then Jernigan Drive back out to the southwest and ultimately into Hardeman County. Although I didn’t find any picnics or fife-and-drum bands, I did find some old abandoned stores, juke joints and schools along the route, and I stopped to photograph them all before ultimately ending up in Whiteville.
I recalled that Whiteville had been the site of a very important and early high school for African-Americans in West Tennessee, the Hardeman County Training School, which had eventually become Allen-White High School. In the earliest years, the high school had been something like a college, with dormitories, because Bolivar, the county seat, had no schools for Black children, and high school education for Blacks in West Tennessee was severely limited. Some children traveled far from their homes and stayed in dormitories on campuses like Allen-White in Bolivar, Gailor in Mason, or Shelby County Training School at Woodstock, and others arranged to stay with families who resided near the schools. So Allen-White, which had been built with funds donated by Julius Rosenwald, the CEO of Sears & Roebuck, was extremely important as an opportunity for secondary education for Black students. Indeed, its long-time principal, J. H. White, went on to be the first president of Mississippi Vocational College at Itta Bena, now Mississippi Valley State University.
Given the school’s historical importance, I was curious what I would find when I arrived at the location of the old campus, but nothing prepared me for what I found. Although an old “Allen-White High School, Class of 1951” sign remained at the front of the campus, the buildings were largely ruins, having been burnt in an arson fire in 2012. The portions of the campus that were not burnt in the fire were abandoned and overgrown with high grass, weeds and bushes. I was thoroughly depressed with what I found, and all the more so when I read online that the community had been hoping to use the building for community purposes prior to the arson. The extent to which Black school campuses are abandoned in Southern towns is an annoyance to me, perhaps an unintended consequence of school integration. Given the thousands of dollars invested in these campuses by the taxpayers, it’s hard for me to understand why the local governments could not find a suitable public use for these campuses before simply abandoning them to ruin. Arguably, had the Allen-White campus not been vacant and abandoned, there might have been no arson.
From Whiteville, I ended up riding across the northwest corner of Fayette County, then through Dancyville and across to Stanton and Mason before I decided to head back to the house. While I had documented a lot of historic sites in the area, I found no trace of the fife-and-drum music culture I had hoped to find in or around Fayette County. I have come to the sad conclusion that it probably no longer exists.
After Bradley Hanson of the Tennessee State Archives sent me a link to recordings made of a fife and drum band in rural Fayette County in 1980, I spent several weeks trying to determine if any fife and drum activity remains in West Tennessee today. Ultimately, I was disappointed, in that I found no evidence of any, but there is still something of a live blues culture in the area around Mason and Stanton, Tennessee. Stores in Mason and Stanton often display flyers for the latest blues or rap events at area clubs or parks. Since Labor Day is arguably the biggest weekend for fife-and-drum picnics, I decided to roll the backroads around the area on Sunday, September 4, in the hopes that I might stumble onto something. Near Stanton, Tennessee, in Haywood County, is a small community across the line in Fayette called Fredonia, that was once a site of much fife- and-drum activity. That doesn’t seem to go on there anymore, but the Gilliam family still holds a large picnic there on Labor Day weekend each year featuring a live blues band, usually Big Don Valentine and Booker Brown. This year there were already a lot of cars around the spot and a large crowd was gathered, but because R. L. Boyce was playing in Clarksdale, Mississippi later, I decided not to stop at the Gilliam picnic. Not far away, on Wagon Wheel Drive, I came to what had once been the Bonner Grocery. Now called Mike’s Grocery, it was otherwise largely unchanged from its historic past, even featuring a wood-burning stove in the center of the building. Such stores are common on Fayette County backroads, but while I found the place interesting, it didn’t get me any closer to any fife and drum activity. Ultimately, I headed out to Mississippi for the show in Clarksdale.
My last day in New Orleans is always a little sad, but for this Sunday morning, Darren Towns and I decided to head out to Katie’s, a restaurant in the Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans, which somehow I had never been to. Although the place looked crowded, we were able to get right in, and I was impressed with the shady ambiance of the outdoor seating, although due to the heat, we opted to eat indoors. Katie’s is a full-service restaurant, offering a lot more than breakfast, yet breakfast is what we came for, and Katie’s is amazing. I chose a seafood omelette, asking them to exclude the green onions, which they did, and I enjoyed it very much. While we were enjoying our breakfast, the place crowded up very quickly, and there was soon an hour wait or more, so it’s a good idea to go early. I noticed that Katie’s also offers po-boys and hamburgers, so I will have to visit again when it isn’t breakfast. I don’t know how I missed this place for so long, but I won’t miss it anymore. After leaving there, we headed down to North Claiborne Avenue where there was supposed to be a coffee bar called Addiction, but it wasn’t open. Next door was a strange example of the oddities of gentrification, as the building was the old Clabon Theatre, but its current owners, who apparently didn’t know any better, painted the boarded-up front black, with a legend “The Clabon”, and then for some reason, a map of Claiborne Parish, on the opposite side of the state near Shreveport, showing the location of Homer and Haynesville and such. Of course Claiborne Parish and Claiborne Avenue and The Clabon theatre have nothing in common except having been named for the same governor of Louisiana. But apparently these millennials didn’t know that.
Katie’s Restaurant & Bar
3701 Iberville St
New Orleans, LA 70119
It was a rainy Monday night, and a work night at that, and I was tired and not feeling like doing much of anything. But my friend texted me and said that her dad, R. L. Boyce, had been asked to play a yard party in Taylor, Mississippi with Luther Dickinson, and that we needed to take him there. So we picked R. L. up in Como and made our way through some pretty significant storms to Oxford, and then out along the Old Taylor Road heading to Taylor. The site for the porch party happened to be a beautiful, rambling old house belonging to Jane Rule Burdine, a photographer originally from the Delta who was also a former mayor of Taylor. The house was full of books, about every conceivable Southern subject. There were many books about Mississippi, and many books about William Faulkner, who of course is something of a big deal to Lafayette Countians. Although the reason for the occasion was never stated, the party featured a number of musicians, writers and film makers, including blues/indie musicians Lightnin Malcolm and Luther Dickinson, and Birdman Records owner David Katznelson. Although rain precluded any kind of playing on the front porch, the house also had a back porch which was fully enclosed, and there Lightnin Malcolm, Luther Dickinson and R. L. Boyce set up to begin playing. The small crowd gathered on the back porch to hear a couple of hours of the best Hill Country blues, while thunder and lightning raged outside. My cousin Al Morse, who lives in Taylor came over to hear the musicians, and to my great surprise, my other cousin Reilly Morse, her dad, also showed up, as he had been visiting in Oxford and Taylor. One of R.L.’s friends had come from Como to join us, and the party showed no signs of winding down at midnight, so my friend and I decided to leave and go home, since both of us had to be at work early the next day. All the same, it was a whole lot of fun on a Monday evening.
The modern concept of life insurance did not come to the South until after the Civil War, and when it did come, the early Southern life insurance companies did not write policies for African-Americans, the majority of which had only recently been freed from slavery. Instead, African-American men found their needs met by the establishment of many Black fraternal associations and lodges, many of which provided a burial service, perhaps with a brass band or fife and drum band for their dues-paying members. One such organization appeared in Memphis during the 1870’s, an organization known as the Independent Order of Pole Bearers, the name presumably resulting from a misspelling of “pall bearers.” This organization, which featured drummers and occasionally martial parades through the streets of Memphis, spread rapidly, with chapters appearing in rural communities of Shelby County such as Capleville, Bridgewater and Brunswick, then into Fayette County, a number of counties in Mississippi, and even one in Oklahoma. In 1875, the Pole Bearers were so important that white Democratic officials chose to speak at their annual picnic, with Nathan Bedford Forrest choosing to do so, a gracious speech that was published in full in the Memphis newspapers of the day. Unfortunately, the incident has been widely distorted by Forrest defenders in the modern era. The Pole Bearers were not by any stretch a “civil rights organization” as many have claimed. Rather they were a fraternal organization with secret rituals, particularly surrounding the funerals of their members. Nor is it often mentioned that Forrest was probably speaking on behalf of white Democrats who were running for office in Shelby County, and thus was hoping to encourage the Pole Bearers to consider a move to the Democratic Party at a time when almost all Blacks were Republicans.
As time went on, some chapters of the Pole Bearers faded, but the Brunswick, Tennessee chapter remained extremely active, sponsoring an annual picnic during the month of August that was widely attended and which featured fife-and-drum bands, not only from their own organization, but also from similar organizations such as the United Sons and Daughters of Zion, which had chapters throughout Shelby County as well. Drums played a considerable role in the Pole Bearers, being used to summon people to funerals, to announce the death or illness of a member, or as part of the rituals and ceremonies surrounding a funeral. When Ellen Davies-Rogers wrote her excellent history of Arlington, Tennessee The Holy Innocents, she included some diary entries from the diary of Captain Kenneth Garrett, some of which mention the Brunswick Picnic. On Friday, July 28, 1905, he wrote, “Charlie had a holiday-went to a picnic at Brunswick” and on Friday August 2, 1907, Garrett wrote “Roland went to ‘Pole’ Bearers picnic at Brunswick.” The picnic was still going on each summer by 1952, when the Brunswick chapter of the Independent Pole Bearers decided to plat land in their community as a subdivision for Black families to build houses. The resulting community had roads named Independent, Society and Pole, and still exists near the Pole Bearers lodge. At some point between 1967 and 1974, Swedish musicologist Bengt Olsson had traveled across West Tennessee making field recordings, recording Lum Guffin’s United Sons and Daughters of Zion fife and drum band, possibly at the Brunswick Picnic. About this picnic, Olsson described it as “where the members and bands of all the different organizations got together for a feast- barbecued hogs, lamb, chicken, watermelon, drinks….” He further wrote, “Everyone stated that the Brunswick chapter (of the United Sons and Daughters of Zion), No. 6, had the best band, led by Karo and Will Baxter. Though they did not belong to the organization, the (Othar) Broadnax Band played at the Brunswick Picnic every year. They arrived in a wagon pulled by mules, and, as they traveled, played from the wagon, attracting crowds along the way, and by the time they arrived at the picnic site, they had a long line of people following them.”
But the fife-and-drum bands were largely dependent on the social organizations that started them, and those organizations were placed in a precarious situation by the ready availability of life insurance. By 1974, the fife and drum bands no longer appeared at the Brunswick Picnic, and by the 1980’s, there was no longer a picnic at all.
Yet the organization apparently still exists, now known as the Independent Pallbearers Association. A lodge still exists on Brunswick Road in the Brunswick community, near a spot where there was in my youth a baseball field at the intersection with Highway 70. Could this have been the location of the annual picnics?
In Southeastern Shelby County, there is another Pole Bearers’ lodge at 4819 Tchulahoma Road in front of a cemetery that belongs to the organization. Although neither lodge seems to be used any longer, and the charters for the organization’s chapters seem to have all expired, someone is continuing to care for and maintain the cemetery. One wonders if there are any living members of the Independent Order of Pole Bearers- an historic organization which played a significant role in the fife and drum tradition in Shelby and Fayette Counties.
Segregation of the races was the law in most of the Southern United States from around 1890 on, but as the Progressive era dawned in the early 20th Century, attitudes hardened even further. As developers planned new townsites in the South, they began to conceive of the concept of building entirely separate towns for Blacks, rather than having them live in a particular neighborhood of the same town that white people lived in. So Harlem, Florida was built for the Black community outside of Clewiston, Florida, and West Amory, Mississippi was built for the Black community of Amory, and North Gulfport and North Tunica were built for Blacks who lived near Gulfport and Tunica respectively. Likewise, when developers started platting the Sunset Addition to the town of Marion, Arkansas, as a place for Blacks to buy land and build homes, the city officials in Marion decided to exclude the new subdivision from the city limits. Although the developers showed their intentions to build a community destined to be part of Marion when they chose the name “Sunset Addition”, the city excluded the community, and that decision had long-term impacts on the availability of electricity, water and city services in the Sunset area. Sunset was never a big place, and in fact was only three streets wide, but it had a number of churches, a gin, a few stores, and perhaps its most important institution, the James Sebastian Phelix High School, founded in 1946 and named for a local undertaker. The Phelix School provided education for a Black community desperate for learning, but while white students in Marion were provided a free public education, parents of Phelix students in the high school grades had to pay tuition when the school first opened. In 1970, Phelix High School was closed under court order, and its students transferred to Marion High School. Despite the importance of Phelix High School in the history of Marion and Sunset, the buildings have been abandoned, and the oldest building is deteriorating rapidly and being reclaimed by the wilderness.
After many years of Marion refusing to annex Sunset Addition, and fed up with the lack of public services, the people of the community voted in 1971 to incorporate Sunset as a town. Although they were hopeful about the opportunity for Black self-government, the new town faced many hurdles. Its small size, the relative lack of retail business, the lack of any employers or jobs, and the low property values within the city limits all reflected the fact that Sunset was intended to be a subdivision within Marion, not a separate town. The years since 1971 have seen scandals, financial problems, and a rapidly dwindling population. It seems likely that Sunset will eventually become part of Marion.
For reasons lost to history, at some point, there was a little wide place in the road north of Marion, Arkansas called Harvard. It wasn’t exactly a town, but the Frisco railroad had a large switching yard there, which they predictably named Harvard Yard. In the late 1970’s, a local developer decided to build a community there, which he also named Harvard Yard. He envisioned his subdivision as meeting a need for poor, working families, and built homes and apartments in angular, modern designs with a weathered wood finish. The subdivision was interspersed with parklands and pavilions, and the streetnames reflected something of a British flair. Home prices were low, and houses were small, but the community really didn’t look all that different from similar subdivisions elsewhere in Crittenden County.
The seeds of a problem occurred, however, in the fact that Harvard Yard was not part of any incorporated town. Located just to the north of the tiny, cash-strapped town of Sunset, Harvard Yard received no city services from Sunset, nor from the larger city of Marion. Sunset had always been an all-Black community, and over time, Harvard Yard also became all-Black. Many of the houses had become owned by corporations or absentee landowners. When people moved out, houses were often abandoned. Fires were common, and the burned-out ruins were left standing, until the trees and undergrowth simply grew up around them. There was no trash pickup in unincorporated Crittenden County, and some people began throwing their trash into the abandoned houses dotted throughout the community. With so much abandonment, drug dealing and violent crime became a problem in the community as well.
Nowadays, Harvard Yard is a bizarre landscape, a former suburban community that has become a disaster area, not through any weather event, but through the toll of poverty, absentee ownership, lack of services and crime. The streets show a handful of inhabited dwellings surrounded by wrecks and ruins, but children play exuberantly in the streets. In the dead center of the community is a small foreign-owned grocery store that seems popular with the local residents and children. It is the only business in the community.
What to do about Harvard Yard is a subject that has bedeviled the leadership of Crittenden County for many years. Many of the houses need demolition, but the county’s annual fund for demolitions is easily depleted each year, as one house costs $3000 to demolish. The county managed to arrange for garbage pickup in 2016, and residents have praised that step, but a July tour of the community showed that a lot more needs to be done. Perhaps Harvard Yard and Sunset would be better off as part of the nearby city of Marion.
The small town of Turrell, Arkansas in northern Crittenden County is yet another victim of Arkansas’ vicious school-closing law. Because Turrell’s school enrollment fell below 350 students, its district was shuttered by the state and ordered merged with Marion, despite the objections of citizens of both towns to the merger. Although Turrell is located a reasonable distance from downtown Memphis, and in theory could become a suburb of Memphis with proper planning and a forward-thinking town government, nobody will move to a community that has no schools. Since the school closure, Turrell has gone steadily downhill. No businesses on its broad main street downtown seem to be open at all, and one building has completely collapsed, possibly threatening the integrity of others. Particularly poignant are the abandoned high school on Highway 77, and the abandoned elementary school on School Street in a residential area north of the downtown district. Closing public schools seems a perverse thing to do to towns that are already struggling. Surely Arkansas’ state officials could come up with a better solution.
Along Highway 61’s strand of tired, worn buildings and washed-out towns, Wilson, Arkansas first appears as a grove of trees on the horizon straight ahead in the flat, Delta landscape. Only when entering does it prove to be a town, and a bizarre oasis of a town at that, with its anachronistic British Tudor architecture, its beautifully-landscaped square and streets, its appearance of prosperity in the midst of the deprivation that characterizes the Arkansas Delta. One might imagine that such a village is mystical, perhaps like the mythical Brigadoon that only appeared every hundred years or so. But Wilson, Arkansas is a real place, its difference caused by its unique history as a company town.
Robert E. Lee Wilson was just a boy in Tipton County, Tennessee when both of his parents died. Forced to become a man at an early age, he ended up cutting timber for a sawmill in Eastern Arkansas, a place where death from injury and disease was common. Beating the odds, Wilson saved enough money to buy some swampy timberland in southern Mississippi County, Arkansas, across a former Mississippi River channel from the island town of Reverie, Tennessee. In order to process the timber he cut, he founded a sawmill town he called Wilson, around the dawn of the 20th Century. That town of Wilson was subject to flooding, and Wilson soon decided that it needed to be relocated further inland. The new town was a model town in every regard, patterned around a well-landscaped square, with a car dealership, tavern, store, gas station, and railroad, all owned by Lee Wilson & Company. Once the timber had been cut, Wilson had turned to agriculture, growing cotton across vast acreages. When existing railroads tried to charge Wilson outrageous prices, or would not schedule trains that met his needs, he built his own railroads, the Delta Valley and Southern and the Jonesboro, Lake City & Eastern. While the town of Wilson was always his crown jewel, he founded other towns as well, Evadale, Marie, Delpro, Keiser and Armorel (the latter was said to be named for Arkansas, Missouri and “R.E.L. Wilson”). Even the Great Depression was no mountain to climb for Robert E. Lee Wilson. Although he paid his employees in scrip redeemable only at the company-owned businesses, they didn’t starve, and Wilson drew the largest check in the history of Memphis’ Union Planters Bank during the 1930’s. But cotton could not remain king forever. The Lee Wilson company diversified, acquiring holdings in Utah and other parts of the country, and several generations of the Wilson family ran things from the company headquarters in Arkansas, but more and more the business was turning down offers from would-be buyers eager to acquire the vast amounts of land held by the company. Finally, in 2010, the Wilson family agreed to sell.
One of the great fears was that any purchaser of the company’s land and holdings would not be interested in the town that went along with the purchase, a fear that initially proved to be true. Gaylon Lawrence Jr, the multi-millionaire who paid $110 million for the Wilson company and its land had little need for a town in the Arkansas Delta, and originally planned to sell it off. But after visiting it, he decided to try something else, hiring an architect and academic from Nashville named John Faulkner to act as a city manager for the Town of Wilson. The Wilson Cafe has reopened as a farm-to-table restaurant, with many of the vegetable coming from the nearby Wilson Gardens. A private school called the Delta School has been opened in one of the Wilson family mansions, and a concert series has been started. One of Johnny Cash’s relatives has opened White’s Mercantile in a former service station on Highway 61, a branch of a store of the same name in Nashville. On a recent Sunday afternoon, the shelves were full of colorful and unique items, and the shop was full of browsers, many of them just having come from lunch at the Wilson Cafe. The address of the store, 17 Cortez Kennedy Avenue, reveals another recent change, the renaming of Highway 61 for Wilson’s most famous native son, a star NFL football player who died earlier this year. A museum of Native American artifacts dug up at the Nodena site near the Mississippi River is under construction on the square. More plans are being discussed, including one that would turn the large office building east of the railroad tracks into a luxury hotel. But of course, it is all too early to tell if any of this planning will make any real difference in the town stuck in the middle of a region of persistent poverty and outmigration. But the effort to save such a unique town should be applauded, and Wilson is an experience not to be missed.
2 North Jefferson Street
Wilson, AR 72395
Open daily for lunch 11-2 PM
Open for dinner Wed-Sat 5-8:30 PM
There are currently no hotel rooms in Wilson, but rooms are available nearby in Marion or Osceola.
About halfway between Jackson’s Farish Street and Memphis’ Beale Street was Greenville’s Nelson Street, the Main Street of the Black Mississippi Delta. Lined with professional offices, cafes, pool rooms, juke joints and churches, Nelson Street was the place that Black people went in Greenville for nearly everything, from business to pleasure. One place on the street in particular stood out, a legendary blues club called the Flowing Fountain, which had been open just a few short years ago.
Nelson Street began to fall on hard times in the early 1990’s, when crack hit Greenville like a ton of bricks. There had been a lot of comings and goings between the Delta and Chicago, and soon the infamous Chicago gangs were in Greenville streets, and gang graffiti began appearing on Nelson Street bricks. Open-air crack markets and drive-by shootings followed. With Greenville like a war zone, most of the jukes and clubs on Nelson Street closed, and most of the ones that remained decided to shift their focus to a younger crowd, hiring DJ’s to play rap and hip-hop. The one exception was the Fountain, which billed itself “The Blues Capital of the World” and featured local talent like the legendary Roosevelt “Booba” Barnes. Occasionally, tourists defied the warnings from their hotel desk clerks, and ventured to the Fountain for an authentic blues experience. But the presence of rap clubs nearby and the frequency of gunfire in the neighborhood took its toll. Stud Ford, the grandson of the late bluesman T-Model Ford said that the Fountain ended up closing because its older patrons were scared to venture into the area because of the kind of clientele the other clubs nearby were attracting.
The building still sits proudly and a little sadly at the center of what was once the business district. The front has been painted with a sort of gallery of important Black Greenvillians including “Boogaloo” Ames and “Booba” Barnes. Nearby, a historic marker explains the significance of Nelson Street. But there is nothing here anymore but nostalgia. A club on Walnut Street a couple of miles away claims to offer live blues on weekends, but it doesn’t book anyone well-known, and tourists have learned to make their way to Clarksdale if they are searching for the blues. Despite a storied past and great potential, Greenville’s Nelson Street is only a memory.